Postlinear Media pictured in the past

This post is a response to an article on Postlinear Media in Mondo 2000, a cyberculture magazine published in California during the 1980s and 90s. It covered cyberpunk topics such as virtual reality and smart drugs. In todays’ terms, it was a more “anarchic and subversive prototype” for Wired magazine.

Uncertain and somewhat concerned about the future, this piece discusses the future of media from a 1990s perspective, very soon before the new formats and mediums we have today came into existence. Wes Thomas, writer of the article “Postlinear Media” in a Mondo 2000 issue presents some new and potentially alarming concepts in that there will be “max overload” with the things we have today, including “Terminal inundation. Interactive cable. Interactive home shopping from 30 video catalogs. Hi-res interactive games. Pay-per-view movies-on demand. Instant access to digital libraries and data banks. Encyclopedic multimedia. Personalized news and info. Interactive commercials…” The article is displayed in the form of a timeline, with questions and facts placed around the main article text perhaps to appear “postlinear”.

The question, “What happens when we start getting 500 cable channels early next year?” definitely puts a timestamp on this piece, given that most cable and satellite television services now offer over 500 channels as a standard (Bell TV provides over 500 digital video and 100 HD and audio channels). The question about the channels is framed almost as if it could be something to worry about, something we won’t know how to handle – perhaps similar to when personal computers and the Internet began being made available, thoughts of “what will we do with all this information?”. The author refers to “Public Excess of Television” almost as a pun for “Public Access”, which bares some similarities to today’s issues of access to the Internet (challenged by proposed bills like SOPA and PIPA).

Although mainstream society and media companies would have been very excited about the ideas of so many channels being added (going from under 50 to over 500 overnight), this article sees this “one-way linear structure” ad difficult to navigate and to filter through to the “good stuff”. Less is more, perhaps, is the point this article is trying to make, deeming the future “Frustrating. Inefficient. Maddening.”

Despite all the dismay and concern about television channels, the writer is actually in favour of computers, because they are interactive and use high-speed, non-linear random access. The question is posed, “So why can’t TV be more like a computer?”. This is very relevant to today, as there is a huge shift from watching shows on television and movies in movie theatres, to instead watching everything and anything online on a computer (or iPad, video gaming system or cellular device for that matter). The major networks and movie studios are constantly looking for new ways to monetize their content online, while fighting against sites that host their content illegally. It is almost comical to see mention of Blockbuster Video, who has recently completely shut down all stores in Canada, as a decade ago “seeing the video rental market about to shrivel up, is buying into cable TV big time.”

Looking at the availability of Internet access today, this article from the 1990s really dates itself by saying that bringing broadband services to the home would be a huge challenge for phone companies. Today, tens of millions of people in North America have readily available broadband access to their homes and offices (although many developing nations are still a long way from being at this point). The “multigigabit info superhighways” discussed in the article as a concept are already in place today, and user demands are constantly challenging the limits of this technology (in terms of speed and storage space). New technologies are discussed as concepts and things that would be inconveniences – such as telecommunications companies having to install fiber cables to individual homes – actually happening today. Bell recently began offering fiber Internet services, staying away from the technology’s name (fibre optic) by instead creating a new name, calling it Fibe™.

Why “postlinear media”? Because the article is looking ahead to the end of a standard television with a few cable channels, to more interaction and options, different formats including “CD-ROMS and personal communicators, and who knows what other communications channels” such as PVRs, Netflix, Hulu and YouTube for example; even Facebook and Twitter perhaps. Although some specific technologies discussed in the article are obsolete or never existed – Jack-O-Mats, Fotomats, VuJak – many are very accurate concepts that are now in place today.

Ultimately the fears and uncertainty of not enough storage or networks not fast enough have been resolved today, as we move toward a digital future with post-linear access to all content all the time.